Back-to-school numbers are low in New Westminster

It was smaller and quieter than a typical back-to-school week – but New Westminster’s schools have successfully transitioned back to in-class instruction.

Schools around B.C. opened their doors June 1 as part of the next phase of the provincial government’s restart plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most students – with the exception of the children of essential service workers and some vulnerable students, who have been offered care and learning in schools – have been taking part in remote learning at home since March break.

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As of this week, more of the general student population has returned to school part-time.

The provincial government has implemented guidelines of 50% capacity for elementary schools, and 20% for middle and high schools.

In New Westminster, the number of returning students so far is relatively low.

back to school, Lord Kelvin
Lena van den Bos, a Grade 3 student at Lord Kelvin Elementary School, was excited to return to class on June 1. At left, she "toe-taps" with crossing guard Laura Powell, as their customary high-fives are no longer possible in light of COVID-19. - Julie MacLellan

In total, about 35% of the school district’s kindergarten to grade 5 students are back in class for half-days, five days a week.  At middle schools, the number drops to about 15%, and at New Westminster Secondary School, less than 5% of students have opted to return for in-class instruction. Middle schoolers are being given two half-days in class per week, while high schoolers have access to teachers by grade and subject area throughout the week.

The decision about returning to class was left in the hands of families; those who opted not to go back in person are continuing with remote learning.

The district notes the numbers of in-class versus remote learners may still fluctuate over the month of June, as families are being given the choice to decide on their children’s return to class on a weekly basis.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf, at the May 26 school board meeting, said schools will monitor attendance regularly. If any division or school goes higher than the guideline numbers, schedules will be adapted accordingly – for instance, potentially splitting a division up between morning and afternoon, as needed.

Schools have also implemented new procedures to maintain physical distancing guidelines – including having more space between desks in classrooms, as well as staggering recess times and dividing up school yards so students maintain space at break times.

Custodians are on site in schools during the day to provide repeated cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces such as doors and bathroom taps.

Parents are also being asked to conduct a health assessment of their children each day before sending them to school; any child with symptoms of cold, flu or respiratory infection is required to stay at home.

(For a full list of the school district’s COVID-19 protocols, check out its health and safety plan online.)

Hachlaf said the district is following the requirements laid out by four authorities: the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the B.C. Ministry of Health, the B.C. Ministry of Education and WorkSafeBC.

“As we adjust to this different environment, we will continue of course to monitor and adjust our needs and guidelines as we progress over the month of June,” he said.

School board chair Anita Ansari, at the May 26 meeting, lauded all the work that staff around the district have done to help navigate the “choppy waters” the school district is in.

“This situation, as it changes week to week and as we try and walk ourselves back to something a little closer to our normal, has been a challenging path to take,” she said. “It’s been a journey that I think has required a lot of work and a lot of thinking out of the box from staff members. I’m very, very proud of the work that this district has done.”

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